Making its debut on June 3, 2001, Six Feet Under—the funeral home-set HBO series created and produced by Oscar-winning American Beauty writer Alan Ball—proved (alongside The Sopranos and Deadwood) that HBO was single-handedly raising the bar for innovative television at the beginning of the 21st century.
1. THE IDEA WAS INSPIRED BY A 1948 BOOK.
Carolyn Strauss, then head programmer of HBO, wanted her network to do a show about death after watching the 1965 movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s satirical book The Loved One, which was based on the Los Angeles funeral business. She contacted Alan Ball, who was about to be in high demand when the Oscar nominations were announced, even though his sitcom, Oh, Grow Up, had just been canceled. Ball spent Christmas of 1999 in his childhood home in Marietta, Georgia, sleeping in his late sister’s bedroom and writing the pilot script for Six Feet Under.
2. BALL WAS GIVEN ONE STRANGE NOTE ABOUT HIS FIRST DRAFT.
Strauss told him that it was really good, but still too safe, so asked him: “Could you just make it just a little more f*cked up?”
3. ANNA FARIS WAS TOO FUNNY TO BE CLAIRE.
In auditioning for Claire, Anna Faris attempted to enact the scene in which the teenager, who is high, finds out that her father is dead. Ball kept laughing, even though Faris wasn’t trying to be funny. Lauren Ambrose eventually won the part.
4. JEREMY SISTO, ADAM SCOTT, AND PETER KRAUSE ALL AUDITIONED TO PLAY DAVID.
Peter Krause eventually accepted that he was much more like Nate than he had originally realized. Scott recalled that for his audition, "It was me, Michael C. Hall, and Jeremy Sisto testing for the role that Michael ultimately got." But there was a consolation prize for both actors: Sisto became a regular character when he was cast as Brenda's unstable brother, Billy, while Scott played David’s boyfriend for two episodes at the start of the second season.
5. IT WAS MICHAEL C. HALL’S FIRST ON-SCREEN ROLE.
Though Hall was a New York theater mainstay before Six Feet Under—most notably after taking over for Alan Cumming as the emcee in Cabaret in 1999—the series marked his Hollywood debut.
6. FRANCES CONROY THOUGHT BALL WAS FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON HER SHOES WHEN SHE AUDITIONED.
When she got the callback to potentially play Ruth, Frances Conroy decided not to wear the pink shoes she had worn to their initial meeting, as Ball had fixated on them (her future boss did inquire about their whereabouts). Conroy believes that Ruth wore white anklets on the show because she wore white anklets to her audition.
7. BALL SET THE SHOW IN LOS ANGELES FOR A SPECIFIC REASON.
The direct quote: “I purposely chose Los Angeles to set the series in because, in a show about death, why not set it in the world capital of the denial of death, which has got to be Los Angeles? Los Angeles is where you come to re-create yourself and to become immortal.”
8. THE OPENING SEQUENCE WAS SHOT IN SEATTLE.
American Beauty composer Thomas Newman wrote the music first, before the video and images were filmed and created. The tree was shot near Lake Washington, but only after being purchased for $400 from a Seattle resident’s yard, uprooted, relocated to the desired area, and held up by wires.
9. RICO AND JULIO DIDN'T HAVE TO ACT TO PLAY FATHER AND SON.
Freddy Rodríguez played Federico “Rico” Diaz. His son, Julio, was played by his real-life son, Giancarlo Rodriguez. (Giancarlo also appeared on an episode of Ugly Betty, also as Freddy’s son.)
10. ONE OF THE WRITERS STRONGLY OBJECTED TO ONE OF THE SCENES.
In “The Trip,” the 11th episode in the show's premiere season, Six Feet Under took a risk in depicting the death of a baby. One writer argued that filming the scene would make the show’s audience disappear. Instead, the writer disappeared; Ball fired him at season’s end.
11. LILI TAYLOR DIDN’T KNOW SHE WAS HAVING AN AFFAIR.
Taylor played Lisa Kimmel Fisher, Nate's roommate-turned-wife and mother of his child. In a dark plot twist, it was revealed that she was having an affair—a fact that Taylor herself wasn’t aware of until “the third episode from when it happened.” She claimed she would have played the part differently had she known.
12. GARY BUSEY UNSUCCESSFULLY AUDITIONED FOR A ROLE DURING SEASON TWO.
Busey auditioned for the role of Pete in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” W. Earl Brown got the part instead.
13. RICHARD JENKINS CAUSED CONFUSION AT AN ACTUAL FUNERAL.
While the show was still on the air, the actor who played Nathaniel Fisher—the ghost patriarch of the Fisher family—attended a funeral in the real world. A woman tapped him on the shoulder and asked him, “Are they filming this?” She wasn’t joking.
14. SOMEONE IN THE WRITERS ROOM SAID "WE SHOULD JUST KILL EVERYBODY" FOR THE SERIES FINALE, WHICH EVERYONE THOUGHT WAS FUNNY.
The laughter stopped when the room realized it was a serious suggestion, and Ball realized that it would be the perfect way to end the series.
15. AN EXTRA PLAYED 101-YEAR-OLD CLAIRE IN THE FINALE'S DEATH MONTAGE.
While every other actor wore prosthetics to play their older selves, Lauren Ambrose stopped portraying Claire once she was on her death bed. The extra was in her seventies. Contact lenses were used for the final shot of her eyes.
All images courtesy of Getty